Monday 1 December 2014

Theatre review: Behind The Beautiful Forevers

I'm sitting down to write this and the Bollywood song “Om Shanti Om” has just floated unbidden, into my head. I've only ever heard it at a couple of Indian weddings and in the play I'm about to write about. Amazing, the power of music and the way it worms its way into the brain and links itself with emotions, places, experiences (eeugh, I'm shuddering- that expression will never be the same since the story of the tapeworm in the brain came out last week).

So subject of the day. Slums. And the new play at the National Theatre, Behind the Beautiful Forevers on till April 12th starring some familiar TV faces (including Meera Syal and the guy that plays Sanjeev Bhaskar's dad in The Kumars). Which is about slums.

Mini-Me has always wanted to watch Slumdog Millionaire and I haven't let her, yet. As I remember, it depicts a dark and violent world that I felt I wanted to shelter her from in her childhood. Now she has grown up into Midi-Me however, I think it might be time.

A few years ago we watched a documentary series on TV on the slums of Mumbai. One of the episodes was about recycling and how they find a use for absolutely EVERYTHING. Indelibly etched in my memory are images of men, women and children, walking through streets, slum alleys, train stations and over vast mountains of noxious rubbish, salvaging any trace of material that could be collected and sold. Nothing goes to waste. From the tiniest bit of plastic on a piece of wire to the littlest sliver of foil from a chocolate wrapper. Everything is meticulously collected, separated, amassed into piles and broken down, melted or re-formed into usable elements. Even things which over here, in the UK are un-recyclable, they find a use for, over there. I think witnessing this, albeit on TV and not in real life, did something to my mind because I still think about it a lot and it made me more conscious of what I use, re-use and recycle.

One day, I had this brain wave and wondered why they don't mine old land-fill sites here for materials which have been thrown away for decades and which we now need – like copper. (Did you know there is a shortage of copper?) I Asked The Google and found out that, of course, they are already doing it. I also think they should bring some of those street experts over here to advise on what can be done with the vast amounts of “rubbish” we currently send to landfill every year. I'm not sure those are the highly-skilled migrants the government wants to encourage but they should be... Anyway, as usual I digress

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is set in the Annawadi slum of Mumbai. It's near the airport (depicted very well- I won't spoil it by saying how,) and populated by people from all over India; Hindu, Muslim and Christian living side by side. The play opens with the arresting scene of a trash-filled wasteland, quickly cleared, followed by one of these “sorters”, separating and weighing the day's collections. It is a respectable, lucrative job within the slum, one carried out with purpose and which supports an entire family, almost allowing them to advance one step closer to a “beautiful forever”. As the story unfolds, we meet people with other jobs and roles within the slum society and start to understand the hierarchy that exists, in terms of affluence and influence; both are inextricably linked. We come face to face with the outcomes, often shockingly tragic, that befall some of those who aspire to greater things. And we discover an achingly unfair, kafkaesque system – if you can call it a system – within-which justice is sought (often futilely) and thwarted (often successfully) by parties equally desperate.

And the above paragraph cannot do the play justice. I don't want to say too much because I don't want to spoil it for you if you are going to see it. I really found it was worth watching and there were so many more issues and intricacies that you are made to confront in doing so. What's more, it is based on real interviews with slum-dwellers. Everything that happens is something recounted to Katherine Boo, writer of the original book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Watch an interview with her here:

I think it is a great play to take your kids to (some disturbing and violent scenes notwithstanding,) if they are 11 years or over. Midi-me was moved by it and I think, for all the documentaries I make her sit and watch with me, it is another thing entirely for her - as a young person with so much to learn about the inequalities and painful need on the planet that we inhabit - to be entangled with the characters in this web-like world for three hours. I left the theatre paradoxically both depressed and uplifted with a renewed sense of gratefulness at my place in the world and a desire to use my relatively privileged life for something more meaningful than watching Real Housewives. And also with the Bollywood song “Om Shanti Om” wriggling through in my head.  

On till 12th April at The Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre, Southbank.